The Goals of the Ronin Institute

Greetings Roniños y Roniñas!

Over the weekend, your Ronin Institute got some nice press coverage in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe. You can read the whole article here. Here’s the take-home message, though:

The goal, Wilkins says, isn’t just offering up a short-term solution to the current scarcity of academic jobs. It’s suggesting a new system altogether, named for ronin—the samurai who broke with the code of feudal Japan, refusing to commit suicide upon the deaths of their masters. “The analogy is, if you’re not employed by a university and you’re an academic, you’re supposed to say, ‘Well, I’m not an academic anymore.’ You’re supposed to sort of commit professional suicide at that point,” Wilkins said. “And what we’re saying is, ‘You know what? No, we can do this. We don’t need a master.’”

The article does a pretty good job of providing an introduction to what we’re all about, but I wanted to take a moment to spell out the goals of the institute a bit more, especially for those people who have found their way here as a result of the Globe article.

Basically, the purpose of the Ronin Institute is to reinvent academia outside of the academy, to invent new ways to fund, support, and connect scholars who are doing their research outside of the traditional setting of the university (or National Laboratory, independent research institute, etc.). Simple enough, right?

The difficulty comes in talking in more detail about this new, alternative model for scholarship. The reason is that there is no single model that we are trying to push. The “right way” to pursue independent scholarship is going to vary from person to person, just as the reasons for pursuing their scholarship independently are going to vary. For some people, independent scholarship is a stepping stone, a way to keep themselves in the game while they are pursuing their long-term goal of securing a more traditional position. For others (myself included), independence is the long-term goal. If you come back and check up on me five or ten years from now, and you find me in a tenured faculty position, it will mean that I have failed (or maybe that I suffered a personality-altering head injury).

For me, there are multiple features of independence that appeal. For one thing, I hate departmental politics, and find that there are things on which I am unwilling to compromise, even when I understand the necessity of compromise. For another, my wife spent fifteen years moving to wherever I needed to be. As an independent scholar, I can move to a place that works well for her, and for our family as a whole. Most importantly, I can define my own research agenda, without worrying about whether or not it fits within someone else’s definition of “evolutionary biology,” and without worrying excessively about issues of fundability. So long as I can bring in enough money to keep paying for the mortgage, groceries, and health insurance, that’s good enough.

I have spent my entire academic career dealing with variations on the following: “It’s great that you’re working on X, or that you’re interested in Y, but you really need to spend more time doing Z.” Now, I don’t know how much time you’ve ever spent doing Z, but it is boring as hell, and it is not clear to me that more Z makes the world a better place. X and Y, on the other hand, are awesome, and there is no doubt in my mind that, fifty years from now, people are going to be saying, “Thank God there was someone who had the foresight to work on X way back then, otherwise where would we be?”

For other people, the answer is different. The Globe article emphasized those people who are having difficulty finding a position. One of the issues with academia is that a gap in your resume can spell disaster. After you go for more than a couple of years without some sort of a position, it becomes increasingly difficult to find something. For these people, continuing to pursue their research in affiliation with Ronin can help to ensure that a two-year gap does not turn into a ten-year gap.

For some people, independence means relief from the geographical constraints of the academic job market, the fact that you basically have to go wherever the job is. This can be particularly hard for those two-academic households, where people are often faced with a choice: either one of you sacrifices your career, or you wind up living in a different city from your partner for much of the year. Of course, there are other things that can constrain a person’s job search. Maybe you need to live within an hour of your home town to look after an ailing parent. Maybe there are only a couple of places where you can live and be close to a religious or ethnic community that is really important to you.

For many people, the problem with academia is the lifestyle: the long hours, the stress, the travel. This is where the idea of “fractional scholarship” that Sam Arbesman and I have been pushing comes in. We believe that the people who would like spend ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week doing scholarly research number in the tens of thousands. Some of these would-be fractional scholars have full-time non-academic jobs that limit their hours. Some simply want to be able to pick up their kids from school every day.

For example, I was recently speaking with a woman whom I know from college. She got her PhD in Physics, and then took time off to have four kids. Now, ten years later, she would like to get involved with research again. It would be a real challenge for her to re-enter the academic job market with that ten-year gap. But, even more, she has no desire to jump back into a seventy-hour-a-week career. What she wants is to be able to use her expertise in and passion for science to do meaningful research, and to get paid to do it, but still to be able to go to all of her kids’ soccer games.

When you’ve got someone with this much intelligence, education, and talent, living in a country this wealthy, it would be ridiculous if we could not find a way to make that work.

The question that people seem to ask most is, “where is the money going to come from?” The answer to this question is actually pretty simple. It’s the same place that money always comes from for research: a combination of grants from federal agencies (NSF, NIH, etc.), private foundations, and individual donors. We will be working with independent scholars to identify, secure, and manage grants for specific research projects, just as university departments do for their faculty. In addition, we will be helping some of our scholars to partner with other researchers, agencies, or even companies to take on consulting jobs or subcontracts that can make use of their expertise and supplement their incomes.

And, of course, the extent to which our independent scholars need money varies from case to case. Some people are in the fortunate position of having a partner with a more traditional job (academic or not) that pays most of the bills. What those people need is mainly legitimacy and community, and maybe money to pay for conference travel and publication costs, so that their academic habit is at least financially neutral in their household. Some people really need to find salary support to make ends meet, even if it is only part time.

We start from the premise that if you have the skills, passion, and training to do meaningful academic research, you should not be precluded from doing it by the arbitrary constraints of the traditional system. Then, of course, there’s the fact that there is nothing that can stop us from reinventing academia when we’re working together. The rest, as they will say in the future, is history.

Ronin Institue post at Wired

So, yesterday I posted about the white paper that Sam Arbesman and I wrote about fractional scholarship for the Kauffman Foundation. Well, we also wrote a piece for Wired, which Sam has posted there now.

The best part is that it features a picture of a statue of Ben Franklin, and right under the picture it notes that the article was co-authored with Jon Wilkins (me). Go read it. Go!

White Paper on Fractional Scholarship

So, I’ve been working with the incomparable Sam Arbesman to write up some thoughts on the concept of “fractional scholarship.” Basically, the idea is that there are a lot of people out there who have the expertise and the interest to contribute to scholarly research, but for whom, for whatever reason, the seventy-hour-a-week academic lifestyle just doesn’t work. We need to develop mechanisms that will allow people to participate in research at ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week, and to get paid for doing it.

Obviously, someone working only ten hours a week would get paid a lot less than a university professor, which is part of what makes this such a powerful model. Keep in mind that a typical university professor probably does not spend much more that ten hours a week actually doing research anyway, what with all the personnel-management and bureaucratic tasks that take up so much of their time.

Basically, all the people out there (and there are tens of thousands of them) who got a PhD, but then dropped out of academia (e.g., to have kids) represent a vast underutilized intellectual resource that is trading well below its actual value. Tapping in to that resource is one of the things that we hope to do with the Ronin Institute.

Check out the full white paper at the Kauffman Foundation website, here.